History of Myanmar

From Academic Kids

The History of Burma (Myanmar) is long and complex. Many peoples have lived in the region, the oldest of which are the Mon. In the 9th century the Myamma or Burmese people migrated from the then China-Tibet border region into the valley of the Irrawaddy, and now form the governing majority.

The Burmese history comprises complexities not only within the country but also with its neighbouring countries, China, India, Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand, as seen in the map of ancient Burma.

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Burma during history

The Mon

Humans lived in the region that is now Myanmar as early as 11,000 years ago, but the first identifiable civilization is that of the Mon. The Mon probably began migrating into the area in about 3000 BC, and their first kingdom Suwarnabhumi, was founded around the port of Thaton in about 300 BC. Spoken tradition suggests that they had contact with Buddhism via seafaring as early as the 3rd century BC, though definitely by the 2nd century BC when they received an envoy of monks from Ashoka. Much of the Mon's written records have been destroyed through wars. The Mons blended Indian and Mon culture together in a hybrid of the two civilizations. By the mid-9th century, they had come to dominate all of southern Myanmar.

The Pyu

The Pyu arrived in Myanmar in the 1st century BC and established city kingdoms at Binnaka, Mongamo, Sri Ksetra, Peikthanomyo, and Halingyi. During this period, Myanmar was part of an overland trade route from China to India. Chinese sources state that the Pyu controlled 18 kingdoms and describe them as a humane and peaceful people. War was virtually unknown amongst the Pyu, and disputes were often solved through duels by champions or building competitions. They even wore silk cotton instead of actual silk so they would not have to kill silk worms. Crime was punished by whippings and jails were unknown, though serious crimes could result in the death penalty. The Pyu practiced Theravada Buddhism, and all children were educated as novices in the temples from the age of seven until the age of 20.

The Pyu city-states never unified into a Pyu kingdom, but the more powerful cities often dominated and called for tribute from the lesser cities. The most powerful city by far was Sri Ksetra, which archaelogical evidence indicates was the largest city that has ever been built in Burma. The exact date of its founding is not known, though Pyu chronicles speak of a dynastic change in A.D. 94, so it was before that date. Sri Ksetra was apparently abandoned around A.D. 656 in favor of a more northerly capital, though the exact city is not known. Some historians believe it was Halingyi. Wherever the new capital was located, it was sacked by the kingdom of Nanzhao in the mid-9th century, ending the Pyu's period of dominance.

The Pagan Kingdom

To the north another group of people, the Burmese began infiltrating the area as well. By 849, they had founded a powerful kingdom centered on the city of Pagan and filled the void left by the Pyu. The kingdom grew in relative isolation until the reign of Anawrahta (1044 - 77) who successfully unified all of Myanmar by defeating the Mon city of Thaton in 1057. Consolidation was accomplished under his successors Kyanzittha (1084-1112) and Alaungsithu (1112-1167), so that by the mid-12th century, most of Southeast Asia was under the control of either the Pagan Kingdom or the Khmer empire. The Pagan kingdom went into decline as more land and resources fell into the hands of the powerful sangha (monkhood) and the Mongols threatened from the north. The last true ruler of Pagan, Narathihapate (reigned 1254-87) felt confident in his ability to resist the Mongols and advanced into Yunnan in 1277 to make war upon them. He was thoroughly crushed at the Battle of Ngasaunggyan, and Pagan resistance virtually collapsed. The king was assassinated by his own son in 1287, precipitating a Mongol invasion in the Battle of Pagan; the Mongols successfully captured most of the empire, including its capital, and ended the dynasty in 1289 when the Mongols installed a puppet ruler in Myanmar.

Ava and Pegu

After the collapse of Bagan authority, Myanmar was divided once again. The Burmans had reestablished themselves at the city of Inwa by 1364, where Bagan culture was revived and a great age of Burmese literature ensued. The kingdom lacked easily defendable borders, however, and was overrun by the Shan in 1527.

To the south, the Mons reestablished themselves at Pegu, and under their king, Dhammazedi (reigned 1472-92), entered a golden age as well, becoming a great center of commerce and Theravada Buddhism.

The Toungoo Dynasty

Survivors of the destruction of Ava eventually established a new kingdom centered on Toungoo in 1531 led by Tabinshwehti (reigned 1531-50), who once again unified most of Myanmar. By this time, the geopolitical situation in Southeast Asia had changed drastically. The Shan gained power in a new kingdom in the North, Ayutthaya (Siam), while the Portuguese had arrived in the south and conquered Malacca. With the coming of European traders, Myanmar was once again an important trading center, and Tabinshwehti moved his capital to Pegu due to its commercial value. Tabinshwehti's brother-in-law, Bayinnaung (ruled 1551-81) succeeded to the throne and proceeded on a campaign of conquest conquering several states, including Manipur (1560) and all of Ayutthaya (1569). His wars stretched Myanmar to the limits of its resources, however, and both Manipur and Ayutthaya were soon independent once again. Faced with rebellion by several cities and renewed Portuguese incursions, the Toungoo rulers withdrew from southern Myanmar and founded a second dynasty at Ava. Bayinnaung's grandson, Anaukpetlun, once again reunited Myanmar in 1613 and decisively defeated Portuguese attempts to take over Myanmar. His successor Thalun reestablished the principles of the old Pagan kingdom, but spent too heavily on religious expenditure and paid to little attention to the southern part of his kingdom. Encouraged by the French in India, Pegu finally rebelled against Ava, further weakening the state, which fell in 1752.

The Konbaung Dynasty

It did not take long for a new dynasty, the Konbaung Dynasty, to arise and bring Myanmar to its greatest power yet. A popular Burmese leader named Alaungpaya drove the Pegu forces out of northern Myanmar by 1753, and by 1759 he had once again conquered Pegu and southern Myanmar while also regaining control of Manipur. He established his capital at Rangoon. In 1760, he briefly conquered Tenasserim and marched on Ayutthaya, but his invasion failed and he died in the attempt. His son Hsinbyushin (ruled 1763-76) returned to Ayutthaya, the ancient nation of Thailand in 1766 and had conquered it before the end of the next year. Even China took notice of Myanmar now, but Hsinbyushin successfully repulsed four Chinese invasions between 1766 and 1769 stretching its limits within Chinese borders. Another of Alaungpaya's sons, Bodawpaya (ruled 1781-1819), lost Ayutthaya, but added Arakan (1784) and Tenasserim (1793) to the kingdom as well. In January 1824, during the reign of King Bagyidaw (ruled 1819-37), a general named Maha Bandula succeeded in conquering Assam, bringing Myanmar face to face with British interests in India.

War with Britain and the fall of Myanmar

In response to the continued expansion and even direct attacks of Myanmar, the British and the Siamese joined forces against it in 1824. The First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) ended in a British victory, and by the Treaty of Yandaboo, Myanmar lost Assam, Manipur, Arakan, and Tenasserim. As the century wore on, the British began to covet the natural resources of Myanmar and wanted to secure their supply route to Singapore. A vengeful new king of Burma reneged on the former Treaty and acquiesced on violence and insult against British ships and personnel, and thus started the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852, which ended in the British annexing Pegu province and renaming it Lower Burma. The war resulted in a revolution in Myanmar, with King Pagin Min (ruled 184652) being replaced by his half brother, Mindon Min (ruled 1853-78). King Mindon tried to modernise the Burmese state and economy to resist British encroachments, and he established a new capital at Mandalay, which he proceeded to fortify. This was not enough to stop the British, however, who claimed that Mindon's son Thibaw Min (ruled 187885) was a tyrant intending to side with the French, that he had lost the control of the country, thus allowing for disorder at the frontiers, and that he was reneging on a treaty signed by his father; and thus declared war once again in 1885, conquering the remainder of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War.

British rule

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"Burmese Pagodas", stereoptic view, c. 1890s

Britain made all of Burma a province of India in 1886 with the capital at Rangoon. Traditional Myanmar society was drastically altered by the ending of the monarchy and the separation of church and state. Though war officially ended after only a couple of weeks, resistance continued in northern Myanmar until 1890, with the British finally resorting to a systematic destruction of villages and appointment of new officials to finally halt the guerilla activity. The economic nature of society also changed drastically. After the opening of the Suez Canal, the demand for Burmese rice grew and vast tracts of land were opened up for cultivation. However, in order to prepare the new land for cultivation, farmers were forced to borrow money from Indian moneylenders at high interest rates and were often evicted for failure to pay back the loan. Imported Indian labor ended up with most of the jobs, and whole villages became lawless dens full of the unemployed. While the Burmese economy grew, all the power and wealth was in the hands of several British firms and the Burmese people did not reap the rewards. (See George Orwell's novel Burmese Days for a fictional, if realistic, account of the British in Burma.)

A new generation of Burmese leaders arose in the early twentieth century from amongst the educated classes that were permitted to go to London to study law. They came away from this experience with the belief that the Burmese situation could be improved through peaceful protest and negotiations. Peaceful strikes in the early 1920s led to a constitutional reform in 1923 that created a partially elected legislature with limited powers, but some people began to feel that the rate of change was not fast enough and the reforms not expansive enough. Some of these dissatisfied students founded a new group called Thakin (an ironic name as thakin means "master" in the Burmese language - rather like the Indian 'sahib' - and this was the term that students were required to use when addressing their British professors, whom they were coming to resent). A peasant rebellion led by Saya San that started in 1930 and lasted for two years gave the Thakin their chance. Though they did not actually participate in the rebellion, they did win the trust of the peasants and displaced the older generation of London-educated elites at the head of the Burmese nationalist movement. They staged a strike in 1936, which was notable because it was during this strike that Thakin Nu and Aung San joined the movement. The British separated Burma from India in 1937 and granted the colony a new constitution calling for a fully elected assembly, but many Burmese felt that this was just a ploy to exclude them from any further Indian reforms. Ba Maw served as the first prime minister of Burma, but he was forced out by U Saw in 1939, who served as prime minister from 1940 to 1942.

World War II and Japan

See also: Burma Campaign

Burmese nationalists saw the outbreak of World War II as an opportunity to extort concessions from the British in exchange for support in the war effort, but the British would have none of it, issuing an arrest warrant for Aung San, who escaped to China. The Japanese offered him support, and he briefly returned to Burma to enlist the aid of twenty-nine young men who went to Japan with him to receive military training as the so-called "Thirty Comrades." The Japanese quickly declared Burma independent, and when they occupied Bangkok in December 1941, Aung Sang announced the formation of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) in anticipation of Japanese liberation. The Japanese duly moved into Burma in 1942 and disbanded the BIA, forming the smaller Burma Defense Army in its place with Aung Sang still at the head. Ba Maw was declared head of state, and his cabinet included both Aung Sang and Thakin Nu.

It soon became apparent that Japanese promises of independence were merely a sham and that Ba Maw was just a puppet. As the war turned against the Japanese, they declared Burma a fully sovereign state in 1943, but this was just another facade. Disillusioned, Aung San began negotiations with Lord Mountbatten in October 1943 and officially joined the Allies with his renamed Burma National Army (BNA) in March 1945. During this period, Aung San successfully created a broad-based coalition of political parties called the Anti-Fascist Organization, renamed the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), to govern the country. The Japanese were routed from Burma in May 1945.

The defeat of the Japanese brought a military administration and demands to try Aung San as a traitor for his early collaboration with the Japanese. Lord Mountbatten realized that this was an impossibility considering Aung San's hold on the BNA and his popular appeal and sent the conciliatory Sir Hubert Rance to head the administration, who was able to win back the trust of both Aung San and the general populace. After the war ended, the former civilian governor returned, and Aung San was duly arrested. This nearly touched off a rebellion, but the British backed off and sent Rance back to restore order and faith. Negotiations began for Burmese independence, which were completed successfully in January 1947. The agreement left both the communist and conservative branches of the AFPFL dissatisfied, however, sending the communists underground and the conservatives into opposition. Another who was dissatisfied by the agreement was U Saw, who felt that Aung San had conceded too much in the negotiations. Consequently, he engineered the assassination of Aung San and nearly his entire cabinet in July. Thakin Nu was asked to form a new cabinet, and he presided over Burmese independence on January 4, 1948.

Independent Burma

Burma was left impoverished and devastated by the war and therefore opted for a policy of neutrality in world affairs. There were still many internal difficulties in the first years, including successive insurgencies by the communists, former supporters of Aung San, and Karen tribesmen. The jungles of northern Burma were also briefly home to a division of Nationalist Chinese forces after the Communist takeover of that country in 1949. Burma did accept some foreign assistance in rebuilding the country in these early years, but continued American support for Taiwan finally resulted in the country rejecting all foreign aid. Burma strove to be impartial in world affairs and was one of the first countries in the world to recognize Israel and the People's Republic of China.

By 1958, the country was largely beginning to recover economically, but was beginning to fall apart politically due to continual disagreements among the top leaders of the AFPFL. The situation became so unstable that U Nu invited army chief of staff Ne Win to take over the country. Ne Win successfully stabilized the military situation and paved the way for new general elections in 1960 that returned U Nu with a large majority. The situation did not remain stable for long, however, as Ne Win launched a coup in March 1962, arrested U Nu and several other important government officials, and declared a socialist state run by a Revolutionary Council of senior military officers.

U Ne Win (as he was now called) quickly took steps to transform Burma into a true socialist state. A one-party system was established with the new Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) in complete control. Commerce and industry were nationalized, but the economy did not grow at first as the government put too much emphasis on industrial development at the expense of agriculture. In April 1972, Win and the rest of the Revolutionary Council retired from the army, but continued to run the country through the BSPP, and a new constitution was promulgated in January 1974 that resulted in the creation of a People's Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) that held supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority, and local People's Councils. Win became the president of the new government.

In December 1974, the biggest anti-government demonstrations to date broke out over the funeral of former UN Secretary-General U Thant. U Thant had been U Nu's closet advisor in the 1950s and was seen as a symbol of opposition to the military regime.

In the 1980s, the economy began to grow as the government relaxed restrictions on foreign aid, but by the late 1980s falling commodity prices and rising debt led to an economic crisis. This led to economic reforms in 1987-88 that relaxed socialist controls and encouraged foreign investment. This was not enough, however, to stop growing turmoil in the country. Win retired as president in 1981, but remained in power as chairman of the BSPP until July 1988. By September of that year, the country seemed on the verge of a revolution, and the armed forces, under the command of General Saw Maung, stepped in to restore order, establishing martial law and replacing the constitutional government with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) with Saw Maung as chairman and prime minister.

Renewed dictatorship

The military government changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. It also continued the economic reforms started by the old regime and called for a Constituent Assembly to revise the 1974 constitution. This led to multiparty elections in May 1990 in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory over the National Unity Party (NUP, the successor to the BSPP) and about a dozen smaller parties. The military, however, would not let the assembly convene, and continued to hold the two leaders of the NLD, U Tin U and Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung Sang, under the house arrest imposed on them the previous year. Burma came under increasing international pressure to convene the elected assembly, particularly after Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and also faced economic sanctions. Saw Maung stepped down in April 1992 to be replaced by General Than Shwe.

Than Shwe released U Nu from prison and relaxed some of the restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi's imprisonment, finally releasing her as well in 1995, though she was forbidden to leave Rangoon. Than Shwe also finally allowed the Constituent Assembly to meet in January 1993, but insisted that the assembly preserve a large role for the military in any future government and suspended the convention from time to time. The NLD, fed up with the interference, walked out in late 1995, and the assembly was finally dismissed in March 1996 without producing a constitution.

During the 1990s, the military regime has also had to deal with several insurgencies by tribal minorities along its borders. General Khin Nyunt was able to negotiate cease-fire agreements that ended fighting with the Chinese hill tribes and the Kachin, but the Karen would not negotiate. The military finally captured the main Karen base at Mannerplaw in spring 1995, but there has still been no final peace settlement. Another threat to the government's power was the warlord Khun Sa, a major dealer in opium who controlled much of Shan state, but he surrendered in December 1995 after U.S. pressure had nearly destroyed his business.

After the failure of the Constituent Assembly to create a new constitution, tensions between the government and the NLD mounted, resulting in two large crackdowns on the party in 1996 and 1997. The SLORC was disbanded in November 1997 and replaced by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), but the leadership of the country remained the same and this was merely a cosmetic change. Continuing reports of human rights violations in Myanmar led the United States to intensify sanctions in 1997, and the European Union followed suit in 2000. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest again in September 2000 and remained under arrest until May 2002, when her travel restrictions outside of Rangoon were also lifted. Reconciliation talks were held with the government, but these stalemated and Suu Kyi was once again taken into custody in May 2003 after an ambush on her motorcade and remains under house arrest once again. The government also performed another large-scale crackdown on the NLD, arresting many of its leaders and closing most of its offices. The situation in Myanmar remains tense to this day.

de:Geschichte Myanmars fr:Histoire de la Birmanie zh:缅甸历史


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